The Murdaugh family headlines keep coming. The most recent relates to the announcement by South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) that it is reclassifying as a homicide the 2015 death of high school student Stephen Smith, whose body was found on a remote country road not far from the Murdaugh family estate.
As the agency that arrested attorney Alex Murdaugh for murder — leading to his dramatic televised trial – the announcement has now led to speculation that the family’s eldest son Buster could be implicated in Smith’s death.
But is there actual evidence of this? And what is SLED doing to investigate it?
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First, some context: As police investigated family patriarch Alex Murdaugh’s various crimes, shocking revelations arose around the influential family – including a past body count. In 2018, Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaugh family housemaid, died after a reported fall on the family’s front steps.
In 2019, Mallory Beach, a friend of 19-year-old Paul Murdaugh, died in a boating accident while an apparently intoxicated Paul piloted the boat.
And then there is the 2015 death of Stephen Smith. After his car broke down, Smith was found deceased in the middle of the night on a road roughly 15 miles from the Murdaugh’s rural home. Smith had suffered a blunt-force trauma wound to his right forehead. Due to the body’s condition – in the road’s center, shoes still on, a single localized wound visible – responding officers assessed the death a gunshot homicide.
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But following an autopsy, and due to the body’s location and lack of bullet fragments, the Medical Examiner ruled the case a hit-and-run. Over the apparent objections of officers who had been at the scene, the case went to South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP).
Which is where it appears to have gone cold. While much is not public – South Carolina law heavily shields official documents – what has been released shows the last investigatory activity to have been in 2016.
Until 2021. Because, while investigating Alex Murdaugh for murder, SLED uncovered something that caused them to announce that it was opening on the Smith case. And as of last week, not as a hit-and-run, but as a homicide.
Concurrent with all this has been the dogged campaign by Stephen’s mother, Sandy, to have her son’s death properly looked into. “The only dispute I had was that it was not a hit-and-run…. I felt my son was murdered. He was beaten to death,” she said in a recent interview.
Events have clearly borne her out. She has now raised the funds to have her son’s body exhumed and re-examined by an independent pathologist.
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So what does SLED have to work with on this eight-year-old case? Here are five things to know.
1. The original case documents
Officers at the scene would have taken photos, filed reports, and recorded impressions in emails. The reason some officers were skeptical of the hit-and-run theory is that there were no skid marks or debris typical of a pedestrian auto collision. Smith’s loosely tied shoes were also still on his feet – atypical for a fatal vehicle impact. Furthermore, the body’s position in the road’s center seems unlikely for a pedestrian hit while walking along a roadside.
While the exhumed body may provide further insights into the nature of Smith’s injuries, original photographs, sketches, and reports (including the original autopsy report) likely tell more.
2. Digital forensics
Reports indicate that South Carolina Highway Patrol obtained Smith’s iPhone and iPad during their original investigation. A search warrant request was also sent to Verizon for Smith’s cell phone records. Aside from providing essential context to Smith’s life and final hours through emails, texts, app use, etc., there is this intriguing fact: Smith was found three miles from his broken-down car. Did his phone record the steps he would have taken? Or was he, as some theorize, killed elsewhere, and the accident scene staged?
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The current Smith family attorney reports that the phone has been unlocked, so emails and texts should also shed light on Smith’s personal life. Smith was gay and had reportedly had at least one recent liaison with an older man.
Does the answer as to why a rape test was ordered within 13 hours of his body’s discovery lie in the digital record? And who ordered that test, for a supposed hit-and-run?
3. Traditional forensics
If the body is indeed exhumed and examined, it may not be in a state that tells much. Smith’s remains were sent to a funeral home, where tiny blue paint chips were reportedly found on his clothing. Were these from a car, or something else? Is the clothing still available? Can it be examined for hair, fiber, or DNA evidence? Smith’s wallet was found in his abandoned car. Can its contents be re-examined? Is the car itself available?
4. Witnesses and informants
During the initial investigation, Buster Murdaugh’s name arose repeatedly. While the record shows Highway Patrol chased this rumor trail, Buster himself was never interviewed.
Smith had tutored Buster in high school and they played on a baseball team together, so the two knew each other; there were even rumors of an affair between them. Is there anyone who can put Buster near the scene that night? Or just as important, exonerate him?
The Highway Patrol documents also include several persons-of-interest, developed through tips from the public. All these are likely being run down again. Can enough be developed for search warrants on any of these individuals? Can pressure be brought to bear for recalcitrant witnesses to provide new information?
5. What does Buster Murdaugh know?
Has Buster finally been interviewed? In the end, it is this last category that is likely most important. Without a witness who can put someone at the scene, getting to an arrest and indictment will be tough. But while at present there is no direct evidence linking Buster Murdaugh to the murder, SLED has outright stated that the case was reopened due to the investigation of his father, Alex.
Buster Murdaugh continues to deny any involvement in Stephen Smith’s death.
Then there is this. According to a recent Netflix documentary on the Murdaugh family, following the 2019 boat accident involving Paul Murdaugh, his father, Alex Murdaugh, arrived at the hospital. A lawyer, Alex offered Mallory Beach’s survivors representation by the family’s law firm – unsolicited. It appeared to be an attempt to “manage” the story of Paul’s involvement in Beach’s death according to the survivors and their families.
Something similar happened in 2015. According to an article published in the Daily Beast, Stephen’s mother Sandy Smith said that members of the Murdaugh family inexplicably arrived at her son’s crime scene on that remote rural road.
Then, the first call she received after being notified of Stephen’s death was from attorney Randolph Murdaugh – Alex Murdaugh’s brother. Sandy says he offered her the services of the family law firm. For free. Unsolicited.
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